New faces emerge in up-and-down Spring game

Defensive lineman Tanner Reeves (11) and defensive back Juwan Gardner (14) tackle Wide receiver Jahcour Pearson (1) during the Red and White game on Saturday at L.T. Smith Stadium.

Sam Porter

The Mike Sanford era officially kicked off this past weekend when WKU hosted its annual Red-White Spring game.

The White team trounced the Red Team 45-13, keeping quarterback Mike White and company out of the end zone the entire game.

Redshirt sophomore receiver Devin Nixon ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown for the Red team, but the offense was only able to manage two field goals the rest of the way.

The White team led 17-10 at half before scoring 28 of the last 31 points. As a reward, the White team ate a steak dinner on Sanford while the Red team settled for hotdogs and hamburgers.

“The White team in particular played particularly well on defense,” Sanford said after the game. “We saw some of the same stuff we’ve seen throughout the course of camp. I thought it was a very sound played football game, especially in the first half.”

Several offensive players,  such as running backs D’Andre Ferby, Marquezz Trigg and Leon Allen were forced to miss the spring game due to injury.

With competition for the starting job in the backfield heating up, sophomore Quinton Baker stole the spotlight. Baker scored touchdowns on runs of 38, 74 and 47 yards, leaving his teammates on the opposing defense frustrated after every score. Baker led all players in total yards and touchdowns on the day.

After seeing minimal playing time last year, the Ashland native took a giant step toward earning some quality clock next season.

“I just try to be patient and let the play develop. When I see the holes, I just try to hit them,” Baker said. “I really worked on my patience and speed this offseason. I love seeing defenses frustrated. Hopefully, it’s an opposing team next time instead of our team.”

Senior receiver Nacarius Fant also missed Saturday’s scrimmage as he continues to recover from a torn ACL,  dating back to last season. Fant’s absence gave younger receivers a chance to prove themselves in a position that loses over 65 percent of its production from a year ago.

Although the rain subsided before kickoff, the wide receivers struggled to hold onto the football from the beginning. After redshirt junior quarterback Drew Eckels completed his first pass of the day, his second and third down passes were both dropped to force a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession. Those two were just a couple out of a handful of drops throughout the day. However, the receivers showed spurts that resembled the big play ability of receivers that recently wore the red and white.

Redshirt senior Kylen Towner, redshirt sophomore Quin Jernigan and redshirt freshmen Xavier Lane and Jachour Pearson all caught passes of 20 yards or more. Redshirt sophomore Lucky Jackson had the lone receiving touchdown, a three-yard fade from Eckels that gave the White team a 38-13 lead.

“Quin Jernighan was outstanding today. He finished out spring ball playing very well,” Sanford said. “His confidence is only going to grow. I can’t tell you enough about Kylen Towner, just the way he’s performed throughout the spring. Lucky Jackson has really been our leader at that position. I’ve been very impressed with the work those guys have put in and I’m looking forward to see the progress.”

Late in the first quarter, senior defensive lineman Chris Johnson made the game’s biggest play on defense. After Mike White and company drove to the White team’s 11 yard line, Johnson stripped running back Teawonn Ligon and recovered the fumble.

The Hilltopper defense will look to be a force again after finishing 41st in the nation in total defense in 2016.

“We progressed really well over the spring after the coaching change. We’re really starting to pick it up well,” Johnson said. “From the defensive line, to the linebackers, to the defensive backs, we’re all starting to click. We’re just trying to show that there is no drop-off and this is still the Western Kentucky defense that everybody knows.”

The spring game concludes spring practice for Sanford and company. The Hilltoppers will host Eastern Kentucky University in the opener on Sept. 2. 

“We can’t wait for the fall. That’s all we talk about,” Baker said. “We just want to improve and not drop off. We’re trying to keep this thing rolling and be a top-25 team that plays in a New Years 6 Bowl. The main goal is to go undefeated. Realistically, we believe we can do that.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.